Time travel comes up on this blog reasonably regularly now I’m more comfortable with admitting the things I like, but I think this is the first time I’ve read a time travel novel that manages to be – for want of a better phrase – not shit. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Thea Lim’s An Ocean of Minutes (Viking, 2018) is one of the best novels I’ve read for months, and probably the best contemporary mainstream novel [not in translation] I’ve read for literally years. I’m not being hyperbolic: this novel is gorgeous, moving, achingly heartbreaking “speculative” (more on that term later) fiction that had me weeping and emoting and engaging and thinking all over the place. In short: it is wonderful, you should read it.
So, time travel exists in the world of An Ocean of Minutes, but so too does a major global pandemic, which is made worse by the time travel that was developed with the intention to stop it. When her lover, Frank, becomes infected with the deadly bug, Polly does the only thing she can to buy her man the expensive medical treatment that can sustain him: she bonds herself as a specialised labourer to the sinister corporation that has the global monopoly on time travel. Back in 1981 she is an upholsterer, a skill that is badly needed in a future (1993) that is slowly returning to normal after the ravages of disease and mass emigration… or so they say.
Due to an administrative cock-up in 1981, Polly arrives not in 1993 but in 1998. This is when she was expected, as the upholsterer vacancy existed due to the return of tourist money to the Texan Gulf coast, where Polly and Frank had been holidaying (“vacationing”) when all the borders got slammed shut. Polly doesn’t arrive in the thriving future she’d hoped for, and instead her Texan 1998 is a terrifying forward projection where class, money, economic and practical – not intellectual – capital holds even more sway over society than it did before. Polly’s free time is regimented and where she is allowed to go is strictly policed, but she retains some relief in not being one of the lower rung of time-migrant workers. However, their presence feels rather like a Chekhovian gun and Polly’s demotion about halfway through the novel is sadly inevitable.
And that, really, is the sadness at the heart of this deeply moving novel: the inevitability of change. For Polly, no time has passed; for the world and everyone she knew in it, 17 years has. Polly made vague plans to meet Frank in a specific place on any Saturday in September of 1993, but she’s already five years out, and even then she’s gambling on the emotional and romantic stasis of Frank. The novel bounces between Polly’s nasty life in 1998 and flashbacks to her and Frank’s romance in the late 1970s and early 80s. It is a simple, but effective, device: it is Polly’s recent memory and the only life she’s had, but it is no longer anyone else’s: the world has changed.
An Ocean of Minutes (and oof what a title!) is a mesmerising and immersive exploration of the fragility and failings of nostalgia, of the risks of blind faith in stasis and the – to be blunt – reality that no one goes eighteen fucking years pining for a lost love unless they’re basically psychotic. Like, imagine if your partner (if you have one you like; if you either a) don’t have one or b) don’t have one you like, imagine you do) got signed up to be on the first peopled trip to Mars (because they won a competition, obviously no one reading this is banging anyone qualified to be an astronaut) and that there is no personal communication allowed. And you don’t have any kids to distract you. And a major societal collapse happens. And you nearly die. And years pass. Yeah, it’s pretty obvious how this goes, isn’t it? You’ll be getting it on, or you’ll at least want to, which all Bible scholars know is just as bad as actually cheating. (Matthew 5:28)
I’d like to pretend I read An Ocean of Minutes feeling it was an attack on any kind of belief, but I don’t think it is, nor is it an attack on love. It is a knowing, intelligent and articulate exploration of how a technology as magical as time travel wouldn’t heal the world: like all the technologies that have been invented in reality before it, time travel only ends up exacerbating the differences that cleave our world apart.
Is Lim’s future believable? Yes. Does she write love and romance and attraction with beautiful nuance and accuracy? Yes.
This is a book that “believes” in romance without being in denial of its fallibility. Yes, it is wonderful to love and be loved and – especially – to fall in love, but love is an analgesic, not a panacea: love makes the world better, but it cannot alone make it good, particularly not in the face of major, serious, pandemics.
Anyway, I think this is a wonderful book and if you like beautiful, sad, literary novels and properly-thought-through time travel – as I do – then this is definitely for you.
No idea who’s publishing it in England: I’m fucking international now.
Oh, and I never got back to the question about it being “speculative”, but basically I was going to write about how it feels wrong to describe something as “speculative” when it’s set in the (recent) past but written now? But that’s me being weird.
On November 14th 2018, I launched my first book, Bad Boy Poet, in the basement of Burley Fisher Books, Dalston. Here are some of the songs and poems I performed:
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